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Ezra Dreisbach Lobotomy

Deceber 2009

Regular Sega Saturn UK contributor Aydan interviews Ezra Dreisbach, formally of the ill fated but brilliant Lobotomy Software, the house responsible for bringing Exhumed (Powerslave), Quake and Duke Nukem 3D to the Saturn.

Below is the interview as conducted by Aydan from SS:UK:


SS:UK Aydan:

Hi Ezra! Once again thank you so much for taking the time to answer questions for me.

Ezra: No Problem!

Aydan:
I'll be asking some questions about the history of Lobotomy and also the time in which you software giants were king on Saturn. Since many are huge fans of all your teams work I wanted to get some information for segasaturn.co.uk

Ezra:
That's good to hear, always nice when someone appreciates your work!

Aydan:
How did you first get with Lobotomy and why?

Ezra:
I'd been working at the University of Washington as a part time scientific programmer for about a year. 
I finished my assigned project, but no one really seemed to care about it.  This was depressing, so when I saw an ad in the paper for a game programming job I applied for it.

Turned out it was a recruiting agency that sent me to interview at 2 places, Lobotomy and Boss Game Studio.  Boss didn't want to hire me, but Lobotomy did. Coincidentally, my next employer, Snowblind Studios, was formed almost entirely of former members of Lobotomy and Boss.


Lobotomy Software Logo

Lobotomy Software Logo

 

Sega Saturn

"The Saturn is a terrible design"

Aydan:
Did you have any input on the games made? Any type of input that is, designs, ideas etc.
Ezra:
Everyone who works on a game affects the result.  I was the only one programming on Saturn Powerslave, so I affected that game's content a lot.

 

Aydan:
Everyone knows the Saturn was hard to work with but you and the team managed to pull of some of the best if not the best 3D graphics on the system. How did you manage this?

Ezra:
Probably just by caring about it.  When there's a game system that's both A. not selling well, and B. retarded it's easy to decide to just half-ass a port onto it.  That was my first game though, so I cared about it a lot.

Aydan:
What were your personal feelings towards saturn development? Any real tough times and situations were you couldn't get code to work the way you wanted etc?

Ezra:
The Saturn is a terrible design.  Sure, guys can make great games for it, but the Saturn is not helping them. 
The worst part is its refusal to benefit from the decades of development that had already gone into 3d graphics, and then adding insult to injury, the super-deluxe but pointless support for 2D tiled backgrounds

Quake

Aydan:
What was the hardest thing to accomplish on the Saturn for you as a programmer? Consistent frame rates? great graphics? etc.

Ezra:
The hardest thing is that it's just missing some of the basic graphics functionality.  It's like trying to do math without subtraction: sometimes you can work around it with some effort, sometimes you can hack something to work glitchy, and sometimes it's just flat impossible.

Aydan:
It's known the SSM (Sega Saturn Magazine) hyped your games up to help get awareness. Did it work?
For example, did the titles sell well?

Ezra:
The titles did not sell well, contributing to Lobotomy's demise.  But they did do a little better in the UK.  Thanks SSM! 
The UK is also playing Death Tank a lot.  So thanks for that too UK!  I always tried to make the PAL work nice for you.

Aydan:
How did Lobotomy start getting into such dire financial stress? Was it a lack of sales on games or other things?

Ezra:
Shipping the ports left Lobotomy in worse financial shape than it was when we started them. 
As I've said elsewhere: since the Saturn is so different the development of the "ports" required a lot of effort.  Art, and some level design was directly incorporated.  Everything else was reimplementation by Lobotomy. 
My guess is that this accounts for the difference for what we were paid to do it, and what it cost to do it. A one project studio suffers a lot of financial stress during the time between shipping one project and signing another.  Lobotomy wasn't strong enough to survive it.


Quake
Saturn Quake: this Lobotomy port of Quake is considered
by many
to be the best version of the game!


Duke Nukem 3d Saturn

The Saturn port of Duke Nukem 3D was a triumph,
however sales were not
.

Aydan:
I'm a HUGE fan of Exhumed (Powerslave US) and I do remember reading of a sequel. I understand it was going to be set back in the ancient Egyptian times and 3rd person.
Is this true? and can you give me ANY other information you know of about the game?


Ezra:
There wasn't much ever developed.  It was definitely a reaction to Tomb Raider, so it would probably have had some similarities. 
The terrain was going to be made of repeating "blocks" of geometry, like how 2-D tile maps had been constructed. 
This seems like a pretty good idea.  It would have allowed the level's geometry density to be a lot higher than Tomb Raider's.


Aydan:
Why was it canceled? was it lack of funds? competition against Tomb Raider?

Ezra:

Lobotomy tried to get a publisher to sign it, but given our terrible financial position, there was not enough time.

Aydan:
You guys did amazing ports of Duke Nukem 3D and Quake. How was this achieved? For a console which "can't do 3D" you certainly made it happen!

Ezra:
They're based on the Saturn Powerslave engine.  Which, as I've mentioned, I really cared about. 

Exhumed
Exhumed/Powerslave

Aydan:
I know that for the Duke and Quake development that Lobotomy was split into 2 teams correct? What was your position in their development? what kinds of trials did you come up with and is there any background info you can tell me about the development process?

Ezra:
I kept working on the Saturn Powerslave engine to adapt it to the needs of the ports.  One of the main differences from those PC games, is that they render even a giant wall as one polygon.  On the Saturn walls need to be diced into evenly sized tiles, so a giant wall turns into a whole lot of polygons. This makes open areas, where you can see a lot of wall area, run really slow.  I did some work to automatically combine the wall tile graphics into fewer "uber-tiles" and render the walls like this when they are far away.  This made it more likely that the original level designs would work, but there were still plenty of areas that needed level design fix ups.

Another amusing level design problem that we had to work around, was elevators. The Build engine (used in Duke Nukem) does not support having two walkable areas that are directly above/below each other.  So in places where you ride an elevator up to a higher level, there is a point midway where the character is invisibly teleported into an identical elevator somewhere else on the map.  Then you continue your ride and get off on the upper level.  Our engine didn't have the limitation, so it was easier for us to just put the level back together.   But in some cases there were multiple shafts connecting the upper and lower levels, whose positioning was not spatially consistent.  That is, the lower elevator shafts might be 30 meters apart, but their corresponding upper shafts are 50 meters apart.

Aydan:
Do you think you could have pushed the Saturn even more regarding graphics? Have you seen the Saturn version of Shenmue for example? Many people believe of a great un-tapped power in the machine.
I understand it wasn't as fast at graphics processing or something like that but the hardware in the console can produce a lot more graphical “oomph” than was ever shown.

Ezra:
It matters how difficult it is to develop for your machine.  Maybe Sega can pour resources into the specialized coding and art that's needed to make something good, but why would anyone else?  It's not like the Saturn was hard because the hardware was all tricky and it was getting some benefit from being crazy.  No, the hardware is hard to use because it is stupid in the way it was put together.

Aydan:
Was there ever a plan to create Death Tank as a stand alone game back then during the Lobotomy years or did you personally want to wait it out until these more current “future” times?

Ezra:

There was no market for small console games until online distribution.  I prefer to make console games, so I had to sit on it for awhile.

Death Tank

An excellent version of Death Tank is now available on XBLA

Exhumed

Exhumed had it where it counted, gameplay and graphics.

Aydan:
If there was one thing you could have done differently back then what would it have been?

Ezra:
It would have saved me a lot of money and aggravation if I could have ended up with the rights to Death Tank when Lobotomy collapsed.


Aydan:

What was it like working with the other guys at lobotomy?

Ezra:
Lobotomy was the funnest job ever.  People who visited the office sometimes commented that it was like a fraternity house, and it was like hanging out with your buddies all day.  You couldn't live there, but I did eventually move into a nearby apartment with 2 other Lobotomy programmers.  Which was almost as good.

Aydan:
Why was the port of Exhumed on PSX changed? Many levels were re-worked and also some things added not in the Saturn title. Was it because you wanted to improve from the Saturn version or was it because they are things left out from the Saturn version and put into the PSX because the Saturn couldn't handle it?

Ezra:
The Saturn version was finished a little before the PSX version, so development continued on the levels.  I think the Saturn side was performing a little better than the PSX, so some levels had to be modified.  This didn't necessarily make them worse, though.

Aydan:
Following on, was there any material used on PSX that was scrapped from the saturn? like the dolphin and eagle things when you collect the team doll?
Also, many things changed for the PSX, the menus, the levels etc can you give any detail/info on why?


Ezra:
Even though the PSX and Saturn versions are very similar, the code base for the two games is (foolishly) completely separate. 
I wrote every line for the Saturn and Jeff Blazier wrote the entire PSX version.  This is not the right way to do it.  Lobotomy management should have made me port Jeff's stuff, but I'm glad they didn't.



Aydan:
Is there anything you'd like to say to the fans of Lobotomy games such as myself? Also, how are things for you these days in the industry?


Ezra:
I'm not exactly prosperous.  But I am worked on exactly what I want.  Hmm, maybe that's why I'm not prospering.

 


Aydan:

What happened to the source codes for the games of Lobotomy after you guys closed down? Any chance of a source release of Exhumed for PC so people can do ports to newer hardware like they have for Doom, Duke Nukem etc? Do you know if we will we ever see a remake of Exhumed? or a release on XBL or PSN etc?


Ezra:
I've never seen any of Lobotomy's development contracts, but I would guess that Playmates Interactive Entertainment now owns the rights to Powerslave/Exhumed.  Awhile ago some guy was asking me the same sort of questions.  He said he asked Playmates about it and they had no idea what he was talking about.  That doesn't mean they don't own it though. If they don't, then the corpse of Lobotomy Software must still own it.  It's time consuming and expensive to get defunct companies to sell you their property and I'm sure no one believes Powerslave is worth money.  So I really doubt anyone's going to fund the necessary lawyering.

 



Xbox 360
Sadly XBLA/PSN Exhumed is unlikely to ever happen.

Aydan:
Why did the name change from powerslave to exhumed for the PAL territories? This is a common thing I see, was the name powerslave taken from the Iron Maiden album which is called  powerslave and has egyptian artwork and what not? Or is it just coincidental?

Ezra:
The original name for the game was "Ruins".  At some point it was decided that this was not punchy enough and we had a meeting in the break-room to come up with a new name.  Suggestions were written on the white board, and then everyone voted. I don't remember anyone bringing up the Iron Maiden connection at that meeting.  I was certainly unaware of it. As for the PAL territories, our publisher for that area, BMG (European publisher) didn't like that name, so they came up with Exhumed.  The Japanese publisher didn't like it either, and they used "1999: Resurrection of the Pharaoh"

Aydan:
Was there anything Lobotomy wanted to put into Exhumed which didn't make it in the final product for both Saturn and PSX?  Also anything in the beta/alpha versions like lost levels items etc?

Ezra:
I'm sure there must have been, but I don't remember anything.

Aydan:
Well, that's all for now! Thank you so much for your time Ezra. I as well as everyone over at SegaSaturn.co.uk will be very grateful for your input.

Ezra:
No problem!

   

 


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